I shouldn’t be reading Jane Eyre because I have finals coming up, and I’m still having to re-read Faulkner, Stein, Fitzgerald, Oates, Wright, and Dreiser. But my partner picked up E.M. Forster’s Maurice, so I thought I should pick up an oldie-but-goodie. I haven’t read Jane Eyre since high school, and though I remember liking it a lot, I also remember finding some of it to be a bit of a slog. I was worried that it would go by slowly, but I was wrong. I’m about halfway through the book (I’m reading this weirdo edition that is sandwiched between the other two Bronte sister’s great works, Emily’s Wuthering Heights and Anne’s Agnes Grey), and I’m drawn into the story.
I love stories with strong female figures, which is why I read Jane Austen so much. In Jane Eyre, we get a compelling female figure, but unlike, say Austen’s Elizabeth Bennet, there isn’t much time for levity or comedy. The story’s very grim: from a humble background, living with an abusive aunt, Jane is sent off to Lowood, an institution in which she must endure some horrid conditions. A typhus outbreak claims her best friend and public outcry forces the school to improve its conditions. Jane stays on as a student and later as a young woman works as a teacher. She then moves to Thornfield Hall after leaving Lowood, in search of something more. There she is hired as a governess for a small young French girl, Adele, whose mother was an opera singer. She meets with Thornfield’s master, Mr. Rochester, a brooding, Byronic hero who captures her attention and steals her heart, despite his moodiness and his abrupt manner. All the while she’s there, the house echoes with haunting laughter.
I’m at the part where Rochester’s hosting a huge party and the gorgeous Blanche Ingram’s there – she’s set her sights on Rochester, much to the chagrin of poor Jane Eyre, who, while attractive is decidedly plain in comparison with her beautiful rival. I find the party scenes interesting because this was at a time when one goes to a party and will sometimes stay overnight. The group of people who take over the house is interesting because some like Blanche or her mother are horrible snobs, while others do their best to be polite and kind to Jane.
One of my favorite parts of the book is the tete-a-tete between Jane and Rochester. The two are very smart and very sharp, and though Jane understands her position in society as Rochester’s employee as well as being a poor orphan, she does have an innate sense of self that doesn’t allow her to wallow in modesty. She’s not a proto-feminist, but there are inklings of feminism in Jane (cultural studies foes will want to burn me at the stake, I know) – and because this is a British novel, the class stratification is sharp and severe – Mrs. Fairfax, Rochester’s housekeeper, for example is content to have Jane at the house because she feels the kitchen maids are beneath her, and Blanche and company think nothing of denigrating governesses as a whole, even with Jane sitting close by. And Jane’s whole childhood was marked and marred by the absence of respectability and access to class.
What I like about Jane Eyre is Bronte’s social criticism. Too many female authors were relegated to “domestic concerns” and were therefore not taken as seriously as their male peers. Bronte’s description of Lowood approaches Dickens in her righteous anger and sorrow over how badly mistreated the young girls are, and how empty piety can be. And because Jane is always aware of her station and class, we understand just how limiting and oppressive those arcane rules were.
Like I said earlier, I’m about halfway done with the book – I know what happens because I’ve read the book before (and I’ve seen the movies), but I still enjoy Bronte’s pointed critique of Victorian England. Interestingly enough, because I’m interested in the African diaspora in the UK, the parts about Jamaica, and Rochester’s connection to the island is interesting to me (I’m taking care not to include any spoilers in my post).
I’ve tried reading George Eliot’s Middlemarch because Julia Sweeney recommended it on her blog, but I had to give up (it was interesting, but much too dense). After Jane Eyre, and after I’m done studying and will have time to read again for pleasure, I may pick it up again.